Avoid these no-nos to prevent maintenance problems for your equipment.
The rig you pilot on the highways looks like an indestructible metal giant, so it’s easy to forget how delicate it really is. But you can sidestep serious truck trouble – and possible out-of-service violations – if you take the time to give your vehicle the TLC it deserves.
The top 20 mechanical problems you can avoid are not rocket science, but they account for about 50 percent of all service issues, says Schneider National Vice President of Maintenance Operations Tom Culver.
Not only that: “Our primary concern with over-the-road breakdowns is safety,” Culver says. “Anytime we have a truck on the side of the road, somebody might run into it.” Also, stories about stranded drivers being victimized by thieves are not uncommon.
These are simple, easy-to-follow tips that will save time and money; and they might just save somebody’s life.
- Don’t operate the truck with low oil pressure. Running with low oil pressure will, Culver says, cause severe internal engine damage and shut down the engine.
- Don’t run a heavy-duty diesel when it’s overheating. Running an overheating diesel can also cause severe internal engine damage and shut down the engine. As well, damage from either of these first two “no-nos” is not covered by warranty, because warranties clearly admonish owners and operators to make sure the engine has oil and is not overheating before running it. Drivers or owners who ignore warranty guidelines will pay for the ensuing damages, along with towing, road service, down time and lost freight, out of their own or their employer’s wallet.
- Don’t use a dirty dipstick. Northern Steel company driver Joel Aparicio of Toledo, Ohio, warns against using “any old stick laying on the ground” as a dipstick. “One of the company trucks wasn’t leveling the fuel tanks properly,” Aparicio says. “The shop mechanics took it apart and found the cross-feed pump was burnt.” A pebble, traced back to a driver using a dirty stick to “dip” his tanks, had got into the cross-feed line, plugged it up and ruined the pump. More gravel was found in the bottom of the fuel tanks, and the entire system had to be torn down and flushed at a cost of about $2,000.
You should physically check the fuel level. “Fuel gauges are not necessarily correct and can be a cause of running out of fuel,” Culver says.
But when you do so, “use a measuring device that is clean and free of debris and foreign material,” says Aparicio. “Use the same device every time, and keep it clean and set aside for that purpose.”
Fluid leaks are priority repairs and must be seen to immediately, especially fuel leaks. Fuel mixed with water, snow or slush is very slippery and can cause accidents. It’s also a DOT out-of-service violation.
- Don’t let the coolant level get too low. “Low coolant level can cause overheating and possibly shut an engine down,” Culver says, which is why it’s also smart to carry extra coolant and water; most engine manufacturers design an engine to automatically shut down when it’s low on coolant. Spare coolant and water on hand makes this a simple, easily solved problem and saves road service bills. However, as driver Rick Seufert of Toronto, Ontario, Canada says, drivers should take a minute to check all fluid levels at every fuel stop.
- Ditto for power steering fluid. Low power steering fluid level can damage the power steering pump and make steering difficult. It’s also a possible DOT out-of-service violation.
- Do not overfill with oil. Big truck engines hold about a dozen gallons of oil; an extra quart here and there won’t hurt anything. However, more excess than that can cause blown engine seals and fouled injectors and require major repairs, Culver says.
- Don’t overload your truck with electrical accessories. Some drivers like their coffee machines, microwaves, VCR/DVD players, TVs, refrigerators and big radios. But Culver warns against installing power inverters or excessive electrical accessories, as the fires these items cause are common enough to get this tip on the top-20 list. We all want comfort and entertainment, but in the end, this is trucking. Boom-boom stereos and CBs that reach Tierra del Fuego are not required for safe, on-time freight delivery.
- Do not operate a big truck if the alternator is not charging or is charging at a low rate. Regularly check the dash voltage gauge, and check the alternator drive belt for wear and tightness during fuel stops. Most big truck engines will shut down if the voltage gauge needle drops to 10.5 or below.
- Don’t run with low tire pressure. Tire maintenance cannot be over emphasized, and it requires close inspection before and after every trip. Low tire pressure can damage a tire and cause a blowout. Besides air pressure, check for nails, screws, bits of metal, etc. stuck in the tread. Use pliers to remove foreign objects. If you pull something out and air starts leaking, do not attempt to stop the leak by re-inserting the foreign object into the hole. Get the leak fixed and be glad it was found during inspection and not out on the highway. While checking the tires, check the lug nuts for tightness. Pop the end cap off the wheel to ensure the bearings are lubed.
“Leaky wheel seals are signs that you might have bigger problems,” says owner-operator Joe Shaunavon of Saskatchewan, Canada. “Preventative maintenance is cheaper than major overhaul,” Shaunavon says. “Get leaky seals fixed sooner than later.”
- Do not take the truck on the highway without also checking for worn or improperly adjusted brake discs or shoes, or worn internal brake parts. If these parts are loose or worn, they can cause the brakes to lock up while the truck is rolling and, if not detected in time, actually grind tires right off trailer wheels. The safety issues ensuing from loose or worn brake parts are too numerous to mention.
- Don’t pull a trailer without visually inspecting the fifth-wheel latch on the kingpin. The “tug test” isn’t good enough, and unscrupulous pranksters sometimes pull kingpin releases while drivers are sleeping or away from their trucks. Shaunavon, with 15 years of experience, uses a flashlight to check the kingpin hookups on his Mack tractor and B-train grain trailers. “Make sure the fifth wheel jaws are fully closed,” Shaunavon says. “Keep your fifth wheel clean and lubricated so it works properly and you don’t injure yourself trying to unhook.”
- Never neglect the electrical (pigtail) and compressed air (glad hand) tractor-to-trailer connections. Check the lines for tears, chaffing and poorly attached fittings. Replace damaged or missing glad hand seals. A pigtail that vibrates too loosely when plugged to the trailer can cause the lights to wink on and off or stop working completely. Lines rubbing against the cat walk grating or fuel tanks are a DOT violation.
- Don’t skip windshield wipers during inspections. Wipers provide visibility, and without them you’re suddenly driving blind. During cold weather, wipers can freeze to the windshield. When activated, the wiper motor will bend the wiper arms or tear the rubber right off the blades. Replacing wiper blades is quick and easy. Always carry spares, especially if they’re a rare size and hard to find.
- Do not end the workday without taking a minute to drain water from air tanks and fuel-water separators. Water from air tanks finds its way into brake lines, freezes in cold weather and causes brake failure. Excess water in fuel-water separators will cause power loss and eventually damage the fuel system and shut down the truck.
- Don’t drive without inspecting engine belts and hoses. Chafing or cracked engine belts and hoses will eventually break or blow apart, possibly shutting down the engine and certainly creating an imperative repair situation. Talk with a mechanic, and know what kinds of wear to look for. Carrying spares is not a bad idea.
- Don’t forget the lights. Check brake and directional lights, and carry spares. Problems with them are easily detected during inspection, by either DOT officers or drivers. If drivers detect a problem, it can be fixed: no victim, no crime. But if detected by a DOT inspector, a blown brake light can result in a truck parked until the fault is repaired. Not to mention what would happen if the tailgater behind you couldn’t see you were putting on your brakes.
- Don’t travel with air leaks. Listen for air leaks and get them fixed before taking the truck on the road.
- Don’t ignore steering-wheel play. Include a check of steering wheel play from pre-and post-trip inspections. Find out from a mechanic how much play the steering wheel should have. If there’s too much play, again: the truck doesn’t roll until this fault is corrected.
- Don’t leave home without spare fuses. Get some spare fuses, and know how, where and when to install them.
- Don’t drive without being mindful of the truck’s mechanical condition. “Your truck will talk to you if you pay attention to it,” says Swift company driver Julian Thomas of Tacoma, Wash. “I caught a loose turbo clamp by noticing an increase in air noise from the engine.” Thomas points out that a popping noise from the rear might mean the inter-axle lock has been left on. Increased vibration in the front end could mean a bald spot on a steer tire or worn steering and brake parts. A constantly cycling air compressor means an air leak. An extra bumpy ride could mean worn suspension parts. “If your truck changes personality on you – can’t pull hills, won’t stay cool, or quits blowing hot or cold air from the vents – something has changed, and you need to find out what.”
Schneider National’s Culver seconds this. “Do not continue to operate the truck if it has an unusual engine noise or vibration,” he says. “This can cause severe internal damage.”
Heed these tips. They can save headaches, money and time, but most of all, following them can save lives.
Take Your Pretrip Inspection Seriously
Low and leaking fluids, air leaks, burnt-out lights, bad wipers, flat or under-inflated tires, brakes out of adjustment, faulty glad-hand and pigtail connections, and improperly hooked trailers will all be detected by a serious pre- and post-trip inspection. The law requires both inspections, and they are part of any legitimate driver training or orientation program. Drivers sign off on every logbook page for completing them.
On the surface, effective pre-and post-trip inspections are matters of professional pride. How silly can a driver feel when the truck’s engine automatically detects a low coolant level and shuts down on the highway? How about an under-inflated tire that heats up and flies apart or a trailer that comes off the tractor on the road? Most company road-service personnel are too polite to say, “A good pre- or post-trip inspection would have prevented the break-down,” but they must surely be thinking that and questioning the driver’s professionalism.
Beyond pride are cost and aggravation issues. But beyond those is the safety issue. Burnt-out directional lights remove a driver’s means of communicating with other vehicles, creating dangerous, high-speed guessing games. Flying “gators” from bad tires can cause damage and accidents. Stalled trucks cause dangerous, time-consuming traffic problems.
Post-trip inspections – often little more than a walk around the truck and trailer after parking for the night – can be especially helpful. Problems found the night before can be fixed the night before, so they don’t cause safety problems or delay the freight in the morning.
Some laws and rules amount to little more than regulatory harassment, but those requiring pre- and post-trip inspections are good, common sense. They are a driver’s professional duty. They save equipment, time and money. But most of all, they save lives. They should be at the top of any list of safe, professional driving tips.